Police near a barricade at the entrance to a residential area in Mumbai where several people tested positive for Covid-19, during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown on March 31, 2020. Photo: AFP / Indranil Mukherjee

As Covid-19 is spreading at an overwhelming pace globally, Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the World Health Organization director general, recently emphasized the need for lockdowns, testing every suspected case, and treating and isolating those who test positive for the coronavirus that causes the disease.

In fact, WHO officials have repeatedly pointed out that complete lockdown – together with isolating confirmed Covid-19 patients – is the only option available to governments to contain the spread of the virus. Like these WHO officials, many experts across the world have been urging governments to go for complete lockdowns.

Yet only a few governments have chosen to impose “complete” lockdowns of cities and/or countries. Many are either sticking to a “partial” lockdown or still waiting for the “right time” to impose mandatory restrictions – going sharply against what the experts have been recommending for weeks. 

Necessity of strict lockdowns

If strict and mandatory restrictions by way of lockdown are not imposed on the entire population of a country, the virus will start to spread among healthy young people, who are comparatively safer from being infected than older people, supposedly thanks to their better immune systems.

The cities or countries that have imposed early lockdowns have been experiencing fewer cases of Covid-19 infections than those that failed to do so. Take Saudi Arabia for example. The country started strict approaches immediately when the situation started to worsen in Italy. As a result, Saudi Arabia is among the list of countries that are experiencing slower infection rates and lower death tolls.

The restrictive measures that Saudi Arabia has taken to contain the spread of the virus are perhaps the strictest after China and Italy.

Alongside several other measures, the Saudi government has closed down the mosques across the country, including Masjib-e-Haram and Masjid-e-Nawabi, two of the holiest places of worship in Islam. What’s more, the country banned foreign worshipers from performing pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca even before the country had recorded a single case of Covid-19.

Considering that it is seen as the spiritual center of the Muslim world, these measures show the Saudi government’s determination to go the extra mile to contain the virus. So far this has worked well, as the number of reported Covid-19-related deaths so far is low.

On the contrary, other countries that delayed declaring lockdowns are now finding out this was a mistake. Italy is an ideal example of what can happen if a lockdown is delayed.

Italy’s health-care system has collapsed. Nothing is working. The waves of bad news continue to come out of Italy every single day. The numbers of both infections and deaths in Italy have exceeded China’s.

The US too is heading in the same direction, with the number of infections exceeding both China’s and Italy’s, while the death toll is catching up too.

India and the UK too delayed the imposition of complete lockdowns, and it is yet to be seen whether the delay will cost them exponential numbers of casualties. Taking Italy as an example of the adverse impact of a delayed response, it appears that India, the second-most-populous country in the world, could be heading in the same direction as Italy.

What’s more worrying, a few governments – such as Bangladesh’s – chose to declare countrywide holidays instead of imposing mandatory lockdowns. Many experts believe that these countries too could face serious problems, as their less strict as well as delayed response might have already allowed the virus to spread widely among the population.

Indeed, a virus that is mutating and is spreading more rapidly by the day cannot be given time. The more time governments waste before imposing complete lockdowns, the more people will continue to be infected, from which many thousands could lose their lives.

Necessity of prolonged lockdowns

According to experts, the lockdowns should not only be strict and mandatory, but also much longer than governments and businesses prefer – and the public expects – them to be.

Unless the virus completely stops spreading among the human population or a vaccine is available for widespread use, it would be unwise to withdraw – completely or even partially – mandatory lockdowns.

China has already made this unwise move. Many health experts across the world believe that there will be a second wave of infections in China, as the country has recently reopened Wuhan, Covid-19’s place of origin. 

Although China’s strict lockdown has allowed the country to reduce the spread of Covid-19 dramatically, the disease will again quickly start spreading once people start leaving their homes and mixing with one another.

Had China not withdrawn the restrictions and instead continued with the mandatory lockdown for longer period of time, the fear of a second wave of infections might not have surfaced at all. China should instead have prolonged the lockdown in order to ensure that the risk is over completely.

It is worth noting here that British researchers have recently concluded that a minimum of 12-18 months will be necessary to achieve positive results from the lockdowns. This conclusion is worrisome for the UK government as well as for other governments across the world, as they are left with only two options to choose from: (i) withdraw the lockdowns and risk lives, or (ii) continue the lockdowns and witness the collapse of their economy. 

If governments loosen or withdraw the lockdowns, they risk losing hundreds of thousands of people to the virus. On the contrary, they risk complete, irreparable and irreversible collapse of their economies if they do not loosen or withdraw the lockdowns.

While the moral standpoint is straight and clear and requires no discussion, governments across the world should prioritize human health (and lives) over economic health even from an economic standpoint alone.

The economic standpoint is as straight, clear and simple as the moral standpoint. Governments should keep in mind that (i) it is humans who keep the economy going by providing themselves as “resources” and (ii) it is humans whom businesses see as “consumers.” The more the human resources, the cheaper these resources are; and the more the consumers, the more the profits.

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Bahauddin Foizee

Bahauddin Foizee is a threat/risk intelligence analyst focusing on the assessment of investment, legal, security, political and geopolitical threat/risk. His articles on these areas as well as on social, environmental, financial and military affairs in the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific and Middle East regions have been widely published.